By Matt Combs
April 1, 2019 - According to the United States Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, some $600 million of abandoned mine land (AML) reclamation projects have taken place in West Virginia to date.
While that figure is massive, it is still less than half of the more than $1 billion estimated in remaining projects in the state.
In 1977, an AML fund was created by Congress as part of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. That fund was and continues to be built using a tax on coal mine operators which goes toward the abatement of issues stemming from pre-law mine sites.
While the Department of the Interior estimates over $10 billion in remaining projects nationwide, only approximately $4 billion in projects has been completed so far. The fund is set to expire in two years.
Late last week, the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing on the expiration of the AML fund, the proposed RECLAIM Act and the proposed Community Reclamation Partnerships (CRP) Act.
Both acts have a history in the Congress and both received relative early bipartisan support in the House but have failed to make it to the floor of the Senate for a vote.
The RECLAIM Act, in theory, would accelerate the availability of $1 billion in funds over five years to help AML cleanup and economic development projects.
The CRP Act would allow states to enter into partnerships with nongovernmental entities to facilitate AML cleanup while removing or reducing the liabilities of those entities.
The CRP Act would also allow states to develop programs, with the approval of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which would lower the bar for projects aimed at reducing acid mine drainage.
Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., was the subcommittee's first witness for the hearing.
LaHood, who introduced the CRP Act, argued that nongovernmental entities have recognized the need for intervention on abandoned mine lands and are willing to help but are being hamstrung by current regulations and liability concerns.
"This bill empowers state and local community leaders who want to assist in abandoned mine cleanup efforts so that future development can occur in these areas," LaHood said. "No group should be punished for wanting to help out their community in a responsible way."
As for acid mine drainage sites, LaHood argued that the Clean Water Act standards are sometimes too difficult or impossible to meet at certain sites, leaving states to choose between falling into noncompliance with the Clean Water Act if they attempted to clean up or forgoing abatement altogether and not risking having their efforts not comply.
According to LaHood, the CRP Act would allow states to enter into a memorandum of understanding with federal entities after they develop their own guidelines which the federal entities accept.
Those guidelines, in theory, would allow the states to do as much as they could to tackle acid mine drainage without having to fear being found noncompliant with the Clean Water Act at sites where standards would be impossible or excessively expensive to mitigate.
"These state-specific strategies have resulted in successful water treatment projects and significant reduction in acid mine drainage in several states," LaHood said, pointing to Pennsylvania as an example.
As for the RECLAIM Act, the subcommittee brought several witnesses to testify to the potential for reclamation projects and the need for a continuation of the AML Fund.
Eric Dixon, the senior coordinator of policy and community engagement at the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Letcher County, Ky., spoke on the realities on the ground for many central Appalachian communities left behind by the downturn of coal.
"Where I live, there is an abandoned coal mine less than a mile from my front porch," Dixon said. "Every day, on my drive to work, I pass vacant homes and businesses, cracked and broken roads, closed schools and senior citizens centers. The economy has never been good or fair in central Appalachia, but it has recently been much, much worse. Letcher County once had over 2,000 coal jobs. Now there are fewer than 100."
Speaking about the abandoned mine sites which dot the region, Dixon said they are a hindrance to any sense of success.
"You can't live safely near many of these sites, much less launch a business or get a local economy going," Dixon said.
Speaking on the RECLAIM Act as introduced, Dixon said that every dollar would go toward mine reclamation and while not directly going toward redevelopment projects, the reclamation could be done to suit future redevelopment.
As examples of success, Dixon pointed to a hydroponics facility in West Virginia, a winery in Virginia and a mining exhibit with adjacent small businesses in Kentucky.
"These projects won't create enough jobs to single-handedly revitalize the community, but they are making a meaningful contribution to building a new diverse economy and making our community safer," Dixon said.
Dan Fisher, the treasurer of Gillespie, Ill., also spoke on successes in mine reclamation.
"We have seen, in the central part of Illinois, that reclamation of coal mines can lead to economic and community development," Fisher said.
Fisher told the subcommittee about growing up and playing in the spoils of the mine where his father and grandfathers worked.
The treasurer said that he still lives only a couple of hundred yards from the spot, but now children play on youth soccer fields that have been reclaimed from the old mine.
Fisher told the subcommittee of a nearby 200,000-square-foot steel warehouse, a carpet retailer and distributor, a commercial Dumpster fabricator and a winery all built on reclaimed mines near his community.
"All these businesses that I'm citing, I could probably take up several more minutes of testimony on that, are all on reclaimed coal mine sites," Fisher said. "What's particularly significant about it is, those mines were reclaimed and those businesses located on those sites with no incentives."
In his opening Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., the chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources, shared his appreciation for the bipartisan support both the RECLAIM Act and CRP Act have received in the past and said that he expects both to be introduced in the new Congress fairly soon.
In the last Congress, all three West Virginia representatives at the time were listed as co-sponsors of the House Bill 1731, or the RECLAIM Act, with U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., co-sponsoring the Senate form of the bill with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell R-Ky.